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Montana once boasted a strong timber industry that helped maintain healthy forests, supported local jobs and provided a steady revenue stream for our counties and schools.

But in recent decades, inflexible federal policies and unrelenting appeals and lawsuits have imposed a huge administrative burden on federal agencies, limited our mills’ access to timber and ultimately resulted in the mismanagement of our forests, leaving our homes and businesses at risk for wildfire.

A U.S. Forest Service official recently acknowledged that the abundance of litigation has played a “huge role” in blocking responsible timber sales in Montana and other Region 1 states, including projects supported by collaborative groups consisting of timber and conservation leaders.

“It has virtually shut things down on the National Forest,” U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard stated during a recent Natural Resources Committee hearing.

The result: Montana used to be home to more than 30 lumber mills. Now we have just seven.

This has left numerous Montana counties without the necessary funds to provide for communities’ needs, like emergency services and pay for teachers. It has also left our forests more vulnerable to wildfire. Last summer, Montana experienced one of the worst fire seasons in our state’s history, and this year’s fires have already consumed thousands of acres of trees. This is unacceptable.

Over the past few months, I’ve met with managers of Montana’s lumber mills, conservation groups and local elected officials to have candid conversations about how we can revitalize our timber industry and keep our forests healthy.

Because as most Montanans recognize, the responsible and active management of our national forests is critical for the health of Montana’s economy, as well as the health of our forests themselves.

That’s why I’m proud to have helped introduce the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act. This bill will help revitalize the timber industry throughout Montana and create thousands of good, long-term jobs. It also tackles beetle kill, protecting our environment for future generations and reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfires in Montana.

The Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act will cut the red tape that has held up responsible forest management and timber production. It includes comprehensive reforms to discourage and limit the flood of frivolous appeals and litigation. It also requires the Forest Service to increase timber harvests on non-wilderness lands, now that it will have much-needed latitude to do its work. This improved management will protect the health of our forests and watersheds, the safety of our communities and jobs in the timber industry.

In addition, the legislation restores the federal government’s commitment to provide 25 percent of timber sales receipts to timber counties. It also extends the Secure Rural Schools program pending the full operation of the new timber program. SRS has provided crucial stopgap funding to timber counties after timber sales – and the corresponding receipts – plunged in recent decades.

I recently had the privilege of welcoming Chuck Roady, the vice president and general manager of F. H. Stoltze Land and Lumber in Columbia Falls, to Washington, D.C. as a witness for a House Natural Resources hearing on forest and fire management.

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During the hearing, Chuck Roady perfectly summed up the challenges we face. He said:

“This is a nonpartisan, non-regional issue. It’s simply the case of doing the right thing to manage our public forest. If we don’t, Mother Nature is going to do it for us and when she does it, it’s uncontrollable and catastrophic.”

As a fifth-generation Montanan, I know too well how devastating wildfires can be to our communities, our state’s economy and the health of our forests.

I am not content to sit back and let the status quo prevail. As Montana’s representative in Congress, I’ll continue fighting for solutions that address these challenges.

U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., is a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

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